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Why is 'The Tragedy of Macbeth' being made without Ethan Coen?

The eclectic, eccentric tastes of the Coen brothers may never be matched in cinema, perfectly synthesising comedy, drama and their own encyclopedic knowledge of the medium to create some of the greatest pieces of modern film. Sharing an equal responsibility for their creations, the pair don’t split up when it comes to writing each script; instead, they “talk through” the dialogue and “work it out together”, as Joel explained on the Fresh Air radio show with Terry Gross. 

Their influence on the expansive landscape of cinema truly knows no bounds, having inspired the likes of The Safdie Brothers, Martin Scorsese, and Wes Anderson with their wide filmography, including Blood SimpleFargo and No Country for Old Men. For their highly anticipated latest release, The Tragedy of Macbeth, however, a significant change has been made to the filmmaking process, with the film being the first directed by just one of the two brothers. 

News of Ethan Coen’s departure from the project first came in 2019 as he began to focus on his play, A Play Is a Poem, reporting to the Los Angeles Times that he’s “giving movies a rest”. Ethan Coen also noted, “I feel totally comfortable with movies. My brother and I have been making movies since we were kids…But working on movies is such a piecemeal, technical thing. This is the exact opposite of that — this is a fluid, fragile thing where everything affects the next thing”.

As a result, The Tragedy of Macbeth went into development, starring the likes of Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand and Brendan Gleeson, though crucially without the inclusion of Ethan Coen. Speaking to Collider, the longtime composer and collaborator of the Coen brothers, Carter Burwell, explained: “Ethan didn’t want to do it. He wants to do other things. So it’s going to be a little bit different for all of us”. 

Continuing, however, the composer did note, “I think it’s safe to say, but I think it’s still going to be a very recognisable voice that you’re familiar with, a look that you’re familiar with, I think. I think you’ll find that”. 

More recently, in the summer of 2021, Burwell elaborated on the position of Ethan Coen when joining The Score podcast, where he reported that the breakup of the brothers was “all amicable”. Detailing further, he added: “Ethan just didn’t want to make movies anymore,” the composer said, before stating: “Ethan seems very happy doing what he’s doing, and I’m not sure what Joel will do after this. They also have a ton of scripts they’ve written together that are sitting on various shelves. I hope maybe they get back to those. I’ve read some of those, and they are great”. 

So whilst the state of the future collaboration of the Coen brothers is being called into question, it seems as though the possibility of a future reunion isn’t totally out of the question. As Burwell adds, “We are all at an age where we just don’t know… we could all retire. It’s a wonderfully unpredictable business”. As longtime brotherly collaborators, it seems as though they momentarily want to explore different paths, though, as long as that means we can still enjoy Coen content either on the silver screen or on stage, we’ll sleep happy. 

With no trailer for The Tragedy of Macbeth just yet, take a look at the first image of the film below.